I’m either none or all of the following: Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Pagan, and all the other religions on the planet. I don’t have much time for religious dogma, though I think the teachings and stories from all faiths contain wisdom and insight. The idea that an omnipotent being would only give paradise to those who happen to believe a particular set of stories seems a bit absurd. In fact, as I noted last year, I think those “exclusivist” religions will overtime learn to accept that it makes no sense to say that the faith which happened to develop in their part of the world is the one and only true one, with all the others wrong.
Yet, I do believe in God. I don’t know for sure what the term means. Is God simply “all there is,” and I’m a segment or a piece of perspective in a pantheistic universe? Is God simply a part of my consciousness that connects it at a deep level to all of reality, linking me to the eternal? Is it something like the “force” in Star Wars? I suspect anthropomorphizing God into a human and giving God gender, human traits and (in the case of Judaism and Christianity) even human vices (God is jealous, God is angry) is way off base. Most likely, God is a human concept that represents an aspect of reality that is beyond our comprehension. We glimpse it and try to make sense of it in our various myths and religions: God is love, God is a universal force, God provides a culture its sense of meaning, etc.
So I believe in God, don’t know what God is, but feel a sense of connection to a spiritual side of the world in which material divisions are somehow irrelevant. Time, distance, space…that doesn’t matter, all is one at that level.
That all may sound nice, but the next question is WHY do I believe in this “God?” Religions at least have their holy books and rituals. You get taught from youth to believe, or you are brought into a community which helps you find meaning for life. My view is very individualized, I’m determining what kind of God I believe in, I’m not buying someone else’s set of beliefs. I am considering many teachings and beliefs to help guide my own personal effort, to be sure. I also know that my belief is my “best guess,” not something I consider to be unquestionably true — and that’s good enough for me.
One reason that I don’t accept a ‘pre-packaged’ faith is that on a question of this import, I’m not going to leave my beliefs up to others to determine. I’m not going to believe something out of fear or going to hell, or because of pre-existing institutions. In fact, the more I study religions, the more clear it is that dogmas develop over time and due to human conflicts, not timeless commands from above. It’s my life, I’ll determine what I believe!
The second reason is fundamental: It works for me. I live life in two ways. Sometimes I’m involved in a hectic pace of preparing for classes, getting tasks done, taking care of the kids, worrying about finances, trying to find time to exercise, reading about politics, engaging ideas in blogs or by grading papers, and having a laugh at the end of the day watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Days pile on each other, little things bother me more easily, I get bored, I worry more, and I realize that time is slipping away.
Other times I am, in a sense, “in a state of grace.” I do this by imagining God as a part of me, with me, every step of the way. This “God” is both within me and outside me. It’s like a voice assuring me that things happen for a reason, even the horrible things I can’t understand, and helping me avoid stress, see humor in tiny things, and enjoy each moment without being weighted down by expectations of the future, irritations of the present, or nostalgia for the past. I enjoy life, feel awake, connected to the world at a deeper level, and good things seem to happen. Instead of chance coincidences now and then, synchronicity starts to define my life. I look for reasons why I’ve drawn things to me, lessons I can learn, ways I can enrich my experience of life. I feel a strong sense of joy — I enjoy life.
The social scientist/rational skeptic in me smiles and thinks, “it’s just a psychological thing. I’m engaged in a kind of auto-hypnosis whereby I’m altering my own mood by feeding myself suggestions about how to take things and how to respond. There is no real connection or higher power, just my own mind learning how to deal with the stresses and demands of the modern world. That’s not bad — it’s a good skill to have — but “God?” A “state of grace”? Nah, I’ve just learned to modify my own attitude.
That may be true . Life may feel magical because I’m choosing to look at life through that lens. When I do that I don’t get angry at a car that cuts me off, I laugh when my three year old spills milk on my papers, and shrug when my retirement account loses tens of thousands in a market downturn. When I’m outside that state, I’ll honk at the obnoxious jerk who cut me off, raise my voice to my child for being so careless, and obsess about finances when I have a loss. Since the former experience is more pleasurable than the latter, I’ll go with it even if my thoughts about God and spirituality might be a fantasy.
Yet, I don’t think I’m simply deluding myself. I feel a sense of serenity when I allow myself to be in a state of grace. It becomes easy to forgive others, easier to keep my temper, and can better accept it when things go wrong. There seems to be more understanding and strength, as if I’m tapping into something beyond me — or perhaps a part of myself from which I disconnect when I lose this state. It’s not that I won’t get angry, or write something a bit too provocative, or get irritated. It’s not that only good things happen. Yet inside of me I feel I am more myself, more complete when I’m in this state.
This “state of grace” is a perspective — to feel like I am where I am because somehow I chose to be here for the lessons I can learn, or the people I can help (or be helped by). It’s the belief that I need to make the most of every moment, that each moment has purpose, and is precious. I best maintain this and reinforce/strengthen this perspective through what Christians might call prayer — an ongoing dialogue with my conception of God, a spiritual force which connects me to everything else. At times I imagine responses, at times it’s a monologue. At times I just try to feel the connections. But the more I practice doing this, the easier and more natural it seems, and the more life seems to be a joy rather than a series of burdens or anxious moments.